Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The ancient Church of Saint Alfege, Greenwich

On Monday I happened to be in Greenwich, kicking my heels, with half an hour to spare. As I was wondering what to do I saw this amazing building: the Church of Saint Alfege, designed by none other than Nicholas Hawksmoor. As luck would have it the door was open and the welcome mat was out for anyone who wanted to come in and have a look around. 

So who was Saint Alfege? 

Alfege was ordained Archbishop of Canterbury in 1006. In those days the good folk in the County of Kent lived in constant fear of Viking raids. The pagan Vikings would show up, loot, rape, pillage and destroy, leaving a trail of death and devastation in their wake. When the Danes raided Canterbury in 1011, Alfege was betrayed by one of his own monks, and carried away by the Danes as their prize hostage for whom they hoped to extort a huge ransom.

They took him to their stronghold beside the river at Greenwich, whilst they sent their demands to the cash-strapped English. They wanted £3,000, a king's ransom, but Alfege was having none of it. He knew that the English were already over-taxed and struggling to survive so he refused to do anything that might have encouraged them to cough up the money.

Six months into his captivity feelings were running high in the Danish camp. Many remembered how their comrades had been massacred by the English on St Brice's Day (13th November) 1002. Matters came to a head when they went on a Saturday night bender on 19th April, 1012. The fatted calf was killed, the liquor flowed and the captors got to talking about their hostage and grumbling about how his ransom still hadn't been paid. One thing led to another, and before long they had poor old Alfege dragged up from whichever pit they'd been keeping him in. Using the bones of the oxen they'd just been feasting on they set upon him beating him savagely until one of their number put him out of his misery with an axe blow to the back of the head. He was 58 years old.

Soon miracles started happening. A Danish oar dipped in his blood sprouted leaves. Alfege was canonised in 1078, and the church here in Greenwich, reputedly constructed on the site of his martyrdom, was built at about the same time. The medieval building erected to the saint's memory stood here for over five hundred years.

It was here in this parish church dedicated to Saint Alfege that Prince Henry (later King Henry VIII) was baptised in 1491.

Baby Henry had been born just down the road in his father's Palace of Placentia, as the old Tudor palace in Greenwich was known, and a few days after his birth he was brought here to be baptised. In those days they didn't like to leave it for too long as infant mortality rates were high, and there was a fair old chance that the newborn mightn't survive long enough to be welcomed into the Church.

Later, Henry's younger sister, the beautiful Princess Mary Tudor wed her true love, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk in this church. Princess Mary had always loved Brandon. Brandon had been her brother, the King's best friend, and she had been the jewel of her brother's court. She was the youngest child of the old king, Henry VII, and had been doted on and indulged by her brother, the new King, Henry VIII. When her brother, Henry VIII, came asking her to make a great dynastic marriage to the ailing King of France, Louis XII, the eighteen year-old princess agreed on the understanding that when her frail, elderly husband (of 52) died she would be allowed to marry Brandon, the man she really loved. Henry agreed, and young Mary became the Queen of France. The marriage lasted for a total of 81 days. The old king died on 31st December, 1514 and, when the niceties of mourning had all been conducted, Henry sent Brandon to fetch her home to England.

Mary, fearful that her brother might not keep his word, refused to leave French soil until Brandon married her. She must have been very persuasive. Brandon had promised the King that he wouldn't enter into a secret marriage with Mary, but whatever she said, he was prevailed upon to forget his promise to the King. He agreed to Mary's demands and they wed in secret sometime in February 1515 in the royal chapel at Cluny.

As they returned to Greenwich they were fearful of how the King would react to their union, but Mary was his favourite sister and she worked her magic on her brother. He gave them his blessing and they had a second, public marriage ceremony here in the Church of St. Alfege on 13th May, 1515. The King and Katherine of Aragon attended, and afterwards there was much feasting and celebration. A few in the court disapproved of how the young pair had married in secret, disobeying the King's wishes and without having obtained his permission to do so, but they made a handsome couple and then, as now, few people could resist such a grand love story. They had risked everything to be together and there weren't many who didn't wish them well with it.

The great Tudor composer, Thomas Tallis, the Father of English Church Music, also has associations with the church. Tallis was sent to Court as a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1543. In time he became the Master of the King's Music at Greenwich Palace, and often played the organ here at the Church of St. Alfege.

Have you heard the old Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times? Well poor old Thomas Tallis would appear to have been thus cursed many times over, but somehow he managed to keep afloat through all the changing religious tides of the Tudor dynasty. Maybe it was his wonderful music that kept him safe, although that self-same music must also have put him at the very eye of the storm.

He served Henry VIII, through the last years of his reign. Henry, having ushered in the Protestant Reformation, remained pretty traditional in his own personal observance. He was succeeded by his son, Edward VI, who was something of a Protestant firebrand. Next came Queen Mary (named after her beautiful aunt, the Princess Mary as it happens), who, being a Catholic firebrand, turned things round completely and brought the nation back to the Church of Rome, and finally there was the wonderfully pragmatic Elizabeth I, a Protestant, who famously dismissed all the theological hair-splitting of her day as a dispute over trifles.

Through all of this Thomas Tallis, an unconformed Catholic, managed to keep his place at court, not to mention his head, whilst serving so many, very different masters. Being tasked with writing church music for such a disparate group sounds like it could easily have turned into a death sentence. Somewhere down the line you'd think someone would have taken theological exception to something that he wrote, especially as he liked to compose in Latin, which many of the Protestants denounced in favour of the vernacular.

Maybe he was a very agreeable fellow, who excelled not only at writing music, but also at keeping people happy. Whatever the way of it he lived to be very old, and died happily in his bed of natural causes.

Thomas Tallis may well have agreed with Elizabeth. His thoughts on the matter were never formally recorded as such, but in the beautiful strains of his music I think we hear the most eloquent argument of all in favour of transcending the inconsequential and embracing the sublime. He died in 1585, and both he and his wife were buried beneath the Chancel. Sadly in the course of the church's reconstruction their remains were mislaid, and no one seems to know what became of them.

In one corner of the church there's an eighteenth century organ keyboard that came to light when they rebuilt the church organ in 1910.

The experts believe that the octaves in the middle are from the Tudor period, and as such are likely to have been played by our friend, Thomas Tallis, and by the Princesses Mary and Elizabeth when they were living at their father's Palace of Pacentia in Greenwich.

The demise of the old medieval church came when a terrible gale struck the building in the early morning of 28th November, 1710 causing the roof to cave in. People blamed the extent of the funeral excavations both within and around the old church, which they said had undermined the foundations.

The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren's pupil, Nicholas Hawksmoor. It was the first church to be erected under the New Churches in London and Westminster Act of 1711, which sought to build fifty new churches for the growing conurbation of London to replace those that had been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. They only ever managed to build a dozen of those fifty churches, which became known as the Queen Anne Churches.  The whole enterprise was funded by a tax levied on coal coming into London.

Work on St. Alfege's started in 1712 and finished in 1714. Hawksmoor had planned to replace the surviving medieval spire with a new one, but the Church Commissioners could not be persuaded to fund that part of the project. In 1730 another architect, John James, encased the tower and added a spire, leaving the church pretty much as we see it today.

And there you have it: the Church of St. Alfege. If you're passing, do pop in. It oozes history and the volunteers who run the place are just about the friendliest bunch of people you're ever likely to meet. You can find the website here: St. Alfege, and if you'd like to listen to something by Thomas Tallis I'll leave you with his wonderful Spem in Alium.

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Our World Tuesday and image-in-ing

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Autumn 2014

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower. ~ Albert Camus

I've moaned a lot recently about how I don't want to let summer go, but the other day I took a walk through woodlands that were starting to show their autumn colours against a clear, blue sky. It was … well, it was simply sublime, and I started to appreciate exactly what Albert Camus had been on about.

Down in Devon there are ploughed fields aplenty as the farmers plant their winter crops. The wonderful, red soil looks as though it were designed that way to showcase the glorious reds and ochres of the season.

Emi and I are feasting on hazel nuts foraged from the hedgerows.  He’s very keen, and it’s carries a resonance from my own childhood, out roaming around in nature’s larder. 

I’ve been making chutney and jam, and I’ve even started knitting a scarf for Emi. 

There’s something about the evenings drawing in, and the mellow light of September that always gets me back to my knitting. Maybe it’s another resonance from my childhood; a precious memory of sitting round the open fireside in the evenings with my mum, my grandma and their friends as everyone told stories and worked with their needles. 

My grandma’s stories were always the best; she had an endless store of tales. She claimed that every one of them was true, but I've long suspected that she was accomplished in the art of fiction. Although, to be fair, whenever we'd ask her to tell us the story about whatever-it-was again, she always managed to re-tell it exactly the same each time. 

I miss her now she's gone, and as the year moves through another season it underlines how nothing ever stays the same. We too have seasons in our lives, and with every passing summer I can't help but pause and consider how the sands of time are moving in my own mortal plane. 

And, on a less maudlin note, it's a year to the day since a certain fluffy, little fellow joined our family circle.

And this morning, in a fit of glee, he celebrated his anniversary by digging up all my daffodil bulbs! 

All the best, 

Bonny x

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Christmas Chutney ...

Now I know that I’m liable to court your wrath by mentioning the dreaded C-word in September … and I’m really not the sort of person who starts her festive countdown months in advance. Quite the contrary: I’m the demented woman who shops-against-the-clock on Christmas Eve. The thing is we had a surplus of apples from an old heritage-variety apple-tree - with a name that I just can’t remember. 

These apples look fabulous: all red and glossy.

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And when you cut them in two the lovely blush of the skin goes all the way into the white of the apple’s flesh. 

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They look divine - both inside and out, but they have a really strange texture: kind of spongey, and a slightly tart aftertaste, which means that they are less than fabulous to eat.

Now over here at Talk-a-Lot Towers we are idealistically opposed to wasting stuff, so, rather than composting them, I decided to use them to make chutney. Now here’s the thing: with any good chutney it only really comes into its own if it’s left for at least a couple of months to mature in the jar. So, doing the maths, if you want to make some chutney for Christmas ... now would be a really good time to get going.

This recipe of mine is very simple to make; it tastes divine: not too sweet, and beautifully aromatic; and when it’s cooking your kitchen smells like heaven. Want to give it a go? Well here’s what you’ll need:


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500 g/ 1lb 2oz red onions
1.5 kg./ 3lb 5oz eating apples
600 ml/ 1 pint malt vinegar
400 g/ 14oz unrefined Demerara sugar
20 g/ 3/4oz salt
160 g/ 5 1/2oz  dried white mulberries
160 g/ 5 1/2oz dried barberries
160 g/ 5 1/2oz  golden raisins
160 g/ 5 1/2oz  chopped dried apricots
20 g/ 3/4oz  cumin
20 g/ 3/4oz cinnamon
20 g/  3/4oz mixed spice

And here’s what you need to do:


1. Peel the onions and chop them very finely.

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2. Wash the apples, removing any stems and leaves. Core and coarsely chop them, leaving their skins intact. Take care to cut out any damaged parts.

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3. Place the chopped apples, onions and all the other ingredients in a large saucepan and bring to the boil. Stir carefully so that they don’t stick on the bottom, but be careful not to mush the apples up while you’re stirring. And, yes, mush is a technical, culinary term. When they start to bubble, turn the heat down and keep on a gentle simmer for an hour and a quarter to an hour and a half - until the mixture reaches the right consistency for chutney. You should be able to drag your spoon across the bottom of the pan and leave a furrow in its wake when the chutney has reached a perfect chutney-consistency. Be careful to keep stirring all the while so that you don’t get a burnt layer on the bottom of the pan.

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4. In the meantime, whilst the chutney is cooking wash and sterilise your jam pots. Depending on how things boil down you'll need 6 to 7 medium sized jam pots. You need to wash them thoroughly in hot soapy water. Rinse them well with fresh, clean water and dry the outsides only. Heat an oven to 150 degrees C, and place the washed jam pots inside on a baking tray - open side up. Place the washed lids on another tray, facing up. Bake in the oven in this way for at least 15 minutes to sterilise.

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5. When your chutney is ready, take it off the heat and leave it to stand for a few minutes so that it cools down a little. This will help with the distribution of the various ingredients i.e. you’re less likely to get all the heavier stuff at the bottom.

6. Stir gently to ensure an even consistency and then spoon the mixture into the jam pots, place a wax paper disk in the mouth of each pot and close the lid.

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7. Leave to cool and then apply the labels and any decorative paper tops.

I ended up with seven medium-sized pots of chutney in all - about 2.1 Kg/ 4 1/2 lb. of chutney.

Now, as these little mammas are not all going to be consumed here, I’ve prettied a few of them up to go as gifts to friends and family. You can buy all the bits and pieces ready-made to jolly them up, but where's the fun in that?

I find that a few hand-written labels announcing that the jars contain “Christmas Chutney” and circles cut out of festive wrapping paper trimmed with contrasting ribbon or ric-rac work quite well. If you have some wrapping paper that’s a reasonably weight, it should make first class jar-topping prettifiers. All you need to do is turn it face-side down on the kitchen table. Using a saucer or plate of a size that will work with the height of the jam pot being decorated, draw a pencil circle on the back of the paper and carefully cut it out. Place this over the top of the jam pot, and hold in place with a transparent elastic band. If the paper is beautiful but a bit too light and flimsy you can add a bit more body with some sticky-back plastic. Apply the plastic to the wrong-side, and cut out to fit. 

Sometimes a bit of brown paper with a contrasting paper doily makes for a good look.

Whatever you go for, top it off with a bit of ribbon or ric-rac and you’ll have a good-looking, super-tasty present all ready to go when the time comes. Job done!

As I've explained, the chutney works best when it’s left to rest and mature for a few months. Then, when you open a pot, it will be all rich, and unctuous and delicious.

Enjoy with your Chrimbo dinner!

All the best,

Bonny x

As shared on Friday Finds

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Greenwich Witch Bottle

The other day this object stopped me in my tracks. It hollered at me from its display case, and demanded that I drop everything to come over and take a closer look.

Forgive the photography. They didn’t have the lights on in the display cabinet and, even without a flash, I still got a lot of background reflection on the glass. 

At first I though it was a rather jolly-looking bottle with its pretty flower and its funny face, but then I read what it really was, and realised that it was anything but jolly. This, my friends, is a witch bottle that was created in about 1650, which, to put it in its context, is about forty years before the Salem Witch Trials got underway.

Back then, in the darker days of the seventeenth century, life was hard, superstition was rife and folk were given to blaming the supernatural whenever they suffered a mishap. Their cow stopped milking. Someone must have used an ungodly incantation to dry up her milk. Their husband seemed to have taken a fancy to the strumpet down the street. Well, there was no question: she'd fed him a love potion. Their horse threw a shoe, and went lame. It was all down to their neighbour having invoked the Evil Eye against them. And so it went on. Everyday misfortunes weren’t just a matter of rotten luck; they’d been brought on by witches and spells and black magic.

And that’s where the witch bottle came in. It was an ordinary person’s self-help remedy, a talisman, that would guard against the witch’s spells. This bottle was filled with 12 bent iron nails, 7 bent bronze pins, some nail-clippings (8 in all), some locks of dark brown hair and about 250 millilitres of human urine. The idea had been to make the bottle very personal to the person seeking its protection, who was most probably a woman, hence the use of her hair, nail clippings and urine.

The bottle was then sealed with the melted wax of a black candle and concealed somewhere, where there would be no danger of it being disturbed. Usually this would be at an entry point to the owner's house. Perhaps she’d have it plastered into the daub and wattle of the wall above the door lintel, or buried in the ground beneath the hearthstone of her fireplace (remember that because the chimney was open to the heavens, it was also a potential entry point for evil spirits).

The theory was that if a witch cast a spell it would be absorbed by the witch bottle, and reflected back at her. The bent pins and iron nails inside the bottle took the game to another level. In addition to sending all her own evil back to the witch, these would add a further torture to punish her for her sorcery. The theory was that they would cast a spell on her bladder, making it impossible, or, at the very least, excruciatingly painful, for her to urinate. By this means it was popularly believed that many an evil-doer got their comeuppance and met with an untimely end.

This particular bottle was unearthed during an excavation in Church Street, Greenwich in 2006. What was exceptional about it was that the bottle and its contents were intact, so they took them off for detailed laboratory analysis. The first thing they noticed was that the nail clippings had come from carefully manicured nails. From this it would seem to follow that the owner of the bottle was a person of sufficient social standing to have had both the leisure time and the equipment to tend to her nails. Her hair was dark, and infested with head lice, which would have been endemic across all social classes at the time, and from her urine they could tell that she had been a smoker.

An image popped into my head of a buxom brunette sitting on a high-backed wooden settle, filing her finger nails with an elegant manicuring stick, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, whilst a long, thin clay pipe smoked on a pipe-stand on the table in front of her. Occasionally she would scratch her head and look nervously out of the window, as she reached for her pipe. Inhaling deeply and then blowing long plumes of aromatic smoke into the air she would anxiously scan the horizon outside before returning the pipe to its stand and her attention, once again, to her manicure. 

What was she afraid of? Did she worry that someone would seduce her husband, or corrupt her children, or poison her livestock? Or was she newly arrived from mainland Europe, where she feared for the kinsfolk she had left behind? Perhaps they were languishing in the depths of some squalid dungeon at the Inquisitor General’s mercy. 

For a moment I glimpsed a world of fear and confusion and suspicion, in which it would have been easy to feel helpless. How very different it all seemed from our world, where we start each social exchange in the expectation that the people we meet will be benign, and minded to cooperate with us in the course of our daily grind.

For a moment I felt a surge of compassion for the frightened lady who had nothing more than a witch bottle to hold her nightmares at bay.

If you’d like to see the bottle it’s on display as part of the permanent exhibition in the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre, which you can find beside the Old Royal Naval College. 

All the best,

Bonny x
As shared on Our World Tuesday

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Masque of the Red Death, Edgar Allan Poe

I may have mentioned before that I'm an enthusiastic fan of a good detective story. Like millions of people the world over I enjoy crime fiction. And I have a lot of time for Edgar Allan Poe, the man who created the genre.

Last night, as I struggled to get to sleep, I picked up his Masque of the Red Death, a short story written way back in 1848.

I was hooked from the beginning. It tells the story of Prince Prospero, who lives in a palatial abbey, whilst a terrible pestilence rages across the land.

Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

Of course I immediately started to think about the Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Prospero, we are told, was happy and dauntless and sagacious. He weathered the storm until his dominions were half depopulated, and then he decided to take action. He summoned one thousand hale and light-hearted knights and dames from his court, and, with them, he retired to the seclusion of his castellated home.

There they shut the doors and lived out their days, neither worrying nor caring about the suffering that was taking place in the world beyond.

After five or six months Prospero decided that he would throw a masked ball for his guests. He arranged the rooms of the apartment within the castle in which the ball was to take place in a succession of colours. The first room was blue, with vivid blue light coming through the stained glass windows, the second was purple and so on until they came to the last room, which was black within, decorated with black velvet and with a blood red light coming through the stained glass windows. Not many people came into this last room, perhaps because the severity of the black and the red made them think uncomfortable thoughts of the Red Death.

At every hour a clock in this chamber would sound the time, and all the festivities would stop whilst everyone listened to its chimes. At the stroke of midnight a stranger entered the apartment dressed as though he were a victim of the Red Death. His face was like the face of a corpse. His skin was stained with blood, and he was wrapped in a garment that looked like a shroud.

Prospero was furious that anyone should have ignored his injunction to party and forget about what was happening outside. Seizing his dagger he commanded his guests to catch the intruder and hang him by the neck until he was dead as punishment for his impertinence.

They pursued the ghostly figure, who fled through the succession of rooms until he was cornered in the last room. As the people laid their hands upon him they discovered, to their horror, that there was no substance, nothing at all, behind the outer garments and the terrible mask. The intruder was the Red Death itself. As soon as they touched the nothingness of its contagious core, they were immediately infected with the disease.

Within half an hour Prospero, and all his guests, lay dead, victims of the contagion.

I don't know how Poe conjured up the notion of the Red Death. The critics have never agreed as to whether he had an actual epidemic in mind. Some thought he may have been thinking about tuberculosis, from which his wife suffered. Others thought that typhoid might have been the inspiration. Or cholera. Or the Bubonic Plague. Had he written it today I think everyone would have been certain that it was the dreaded Ebola virus that he had in mind.

Whatever the way of it, it seems to me that there's lesson to be learnt from Prospero's fate, and that we really ought to be doing everything in our power to stamp out this horrible disease and to make the medicines that exist available to people in Africa as well as the western aid workers who get infected in their midst.

If you'd like to read the story, it's well out of copyright - and then some, you can download it for free as a kindle ebook here: The Masque of the Red Death.

All the best,

Bonny x